My Favorite Reply-All Storm Yet

Don't Reply-All if You Work at the State DepartmentNot much content here, but I had to share this story because it’s one I’ve discussed in the past.

The headline from the AP: “Reply-all e-mail storm hits State Department

If you don’t feel like clicking through, this is one you’ve probably experienced. Someone sends an email (in this case, a blank one) to a large number of recipients (thousands here). Many of those recipients reply (to all, natch) asking (ahem, demanding) to be removed from the mailing list.  Many reply (again, to all) citing the pitfalls of reply-to-all behavior in a manner ranging from instructional to downright rude, a classic irony fail.

This one has a few twists though. Apparently, all the replies-to-all crippled the State Department’s email servers, essentially launching a DoS attack on them. Plus, many people tried to use that bogus “recall message” feature of Outlook/Exchange, which only added to the traffic.

But wait, there’s more. The incident prompted a note from the Under Secretary of State for Management, Patrick Kennedy, ordering State Department employees:

. . . to “take immediate action” to ensure they and their colleagues are “aware of the negative impact of hitting ‘reply all'” and to delete e-mails addressed to large numbers of people that they might receive in error.

The kicker: “Anyone who disregards these instructions will be subject to disciplinary actions.”

The precise disciplinary actions weren’t included in the message, which sadly was sent by cable. I know, I was hoping it went by email too, which would have kept me laughing all week; I didn’t know cable was a messaging system in use anymore.

Anyway, this is a meme everyone can understand. Share your favorite reply-to-all meme in the comments.




  1. I shared my reply-all horror story the last time you raised it, but this State Department story just shows that the issue will persist. I don't know if we have a billion people on the tubes yet, but I assume we'll have a billion more in the next ten years, and everyone will need to go through this learning curve.

    Even if mailing list software were designed to lessen the frequency of these storms, that may not be a true solution. I can hit “reply all” on a mail message itself and bypass a mailing list entirely.

  2. Yeah, this is a problem that can only be solved by negative reinforcement, but that's what makes it so funny. Because so many times to reinforce this negatively, people reply to all.

    It's going to be this way until people realize that other tools (e.g. blogs, forums and social activity feeds) do a much better job of sharing information with a large group.

    In the meantime, I'll continue to ignore and enjoy the show.

  3. I disagree.

    For corporate servers this is a problem that could be solved on the mail server. Only a small set of users should be able to send to “ALL”. Add a restriction to the server that prevents any arbitrary user from sending to more than 10 or 20 people. If you want to be nice give them a way to send anyway.

    For individuals the mail client should make Reply to All smarter. If there are more than 5 email addresses in the To, CC or BCC lines it should show a warning when you click Reply to All.

  4. Hmm, I'm not convinced.

    I think this sounds like over-engineering a tool that does what it's supposed to do already, which will create a bloated email server that now has to include additional rules and privileges for sending/replying to an arbitrary number of users.

    Plus, you'll have to account for mail lists, which means counting members of a mail list, and possibly of nested mailing lists, since frequently, multiple lists are included in a single mail, or nested within other groups.

    When in the end, this type of interaction is best done with another tool.

  5. Agree that this is only a partial solution, but it's better than doing nothing.

    Reply to All has been a problem since day 1 done by both the uneducated and those that should know better. A partial solution is better than no solution at all.

  6. Fair enough. I like that you want to solve the problem, don't get me wrong.

    I'm just not sure all that work would be worth it when IMO people will naturally gravitate away from email for this type of communication.

  7. -email sent to 130 people.
    – 'reply all' sent asking question of one person
    -'reply all' sent in response saying “Polite notice – can you not cc everyone in your reply.”
    -i sent a 'reply' in response pointing out that
    “A really polite notice would be to not cc everyone on your 'polite notice'.”

    No response….

  8. At least you were polite and replied to that single person. I like when it starts getting rude and snarky. Makes for good reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.